Robert A. Teegarden's Blog

May 3, 2012

Election Oddities and Quirks

Filed under: Civics,Elections,Government — by Robert @ 11:22 am
Tags: , ,


If all elections were for an open seat, one not occupied at the moment, then it makes sense to square-off in the arena of the public: two or more candidates and two or more campaigns. It’s pretty obvious that these are unknown/new candidates for this particular position. This was ok when the Republic was new (about 240 plus years ago) or when the various territories voted for statehood.  But today most elections are NOT for an open seat. Yet we keep exercising these political events as if we were still in those halcyon days of the wild west.  Things have changed.

Most elections today involve an incumbent and challenger/s: someone who is in office versus someone or someone/s challenging to be in that office. There are all kinds of expressions to describe the situation: insider versus outsider, incumbent versus challenger, oldie versus newbie, David versus Goliath, etc..  But it all comes down to someone with a track record and someone who wants to set a track record in that same position.

The roots of the word incumbent are interesting.  The literal roots mean “to occupy obstructively or inconveniently.” Obstructive and inconvenient to whom?  It’s obvious that an incumbent occupies a position obstructive and inconvenient to any challengers.  The incumbent holds sway, is in charge and has the full weight of a given office to establish his or her position and power.  Some might argue, however, that incumbents are obstructive and inconvenient to the very public they were elected to serve; but that’s a topic for another day.

The point is that an incumbent has terrific advantages over any challenger. There’s the obvious name-recognition of the incumbent.  She or he has been around (usually for about three plus years) and folks have ample proof and examples of their character, their position and their methods of doing business.  Incumbents also can control the very timing of an election process. Since they are “the” government, they can dictate the very mandates of the election process.  And then there are the so-called franking privileges of incumbents. This usually applies to the mailing privileges with regard to their constituent publics; they get to mail stuff for free.  But the clever way that “notes from the hill” are written these days, it is oft times difficult to distinguish news notes from campaigning. Today, franking privileges have been extended to include transportation costs and security. If an incumbent uses a government airplane to fly somewhere for incumbent business that’s one thing; but to then use that travel moment to make a political statement, that’s another—the latter is politics and that’s campaigning.  The incumbent should reimburse the government for that trip.  Incumbents have enormous privileges because of their office.  Not so for the challenger.

Maybe we need some new rules of engagement for elections.

What would happen if in cases where there is an incumbent, only the challengers were allowed to campaign?  Incumbents don’t need to; they’ve already stated their case.  What we would have is a campaign of the known (incumbent) versus the unknown (challenger).  We don’t need the incumbent to spend more of our money and waste more time telling us what we already know.  What we do need to know is about the challenger.  The electorate then compares the track record versus the revealed information in the campaign.  If the electorate likes the work that has been done by the incumbent more than the promises, position and character of the campaigner, he or she is re-elected.  If the track record doesn’t stack up against the revealed direction of the challenger, then there is a change.

Some would challenge this by saying that it’s against the First Amendment rights of the incumbent.  But they have had their “voice.” They’ve stated over and over again what they believe, what direction they’re heading and how they’re going to get there—or not.  They have had their Freedom of Speech—we simply don’t need to have it re-packaged, replayed and rehashed.  But we need to hear from the challenger.

It seems this would reduce the electioneering time by 90%, reduce the opportunity for graft and corruption, and put the process on a more even footing.  Imagine an election cycle of 60 days, not two years. Imagine one debate. If there are no shows, there are no shows. Incumbents can be about the business of government for which they were elected originally, not justifying behaviors that are a matter of history. Challengers can focus on a campaign dealing with issues, not money.  After all, it seems that our election and campaigning process should be about not how much money one can raise, but on what one would do with a given amount of money in the first place.

I think Alex de Tocqueville might agree.


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